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Zaila Avant-garde Talks About How She Came To Her Spelling Success

Zaila Avant-garde attends the 2021 ESPY Awards on July 10 in New York City. She says she's enjoyed the traveling since winning the spelling bee.
Michael Loccisano
Getty Images
Zaila Avant-garde attends the 2021 ESPY Awards on July 10 in New York City. She says she's enjoyed the traveling since winning the spelling bee.

Updated July 18, 2021 at 9:18 PM ET

Scripps National Spelling Bee winner Zaila Avant-garde has been busy since her victory on July 8.

Already, the 14-year-old eighth-grader has been celebrated by the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, LeBron James and Bill Murray. She has made rounds on morning talk shows and on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

She was even honored with a parade in her hometown of Harvey, La., on Sunday.

Avant-garde is enjoying the perks of her newfound stardom. So far, one of her favorite moments was meeting track star Sha'Carri Richardson at ESPN's Espy awards.

She's also fond of the traveling it entails. "I really like going on trips and stuff and like being in the airplanes," she tells NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered. "The airplanes some of the times have TVs in them."

Avant-garde has been doing spelling competitions for two years. She came to it from an early appetite for books.

"Since I was a young child, reading and words has always been something that I loved," she says. "Reading books. I've read like over a thousand books. So that's definitely something I've done a lot of. And then my father saw the spelling bee and stuff and asked me some words from them and was surprised at the fact that I could spell some of them."

Capturing the 2021 spelling title is only her latest entry in the history books. Avant-garde holds three basketball-related records in the Guinness Book of World Records: the most bounce juggles in one minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs, and ties of the record for most basketballs dribbled at once.

But she isn't quite sure which of her accomplishments was the hardest to pull off. "I always struggle with answering this question," she says. "I think spelling probably because of the mental acuity that it takes."

And it's that mental acuity that helped her become only the second Black girl to win the contest and the first African American.

"I definitely started thinking about what that might mean after round one," she says. She hopes that her victory inspires African American and Hispanic girls to take up competitive spelling. "It's a really fun thing to do and it's really great for the mind. And just learning how to learn and also learning how to study for school and stuff."

As far Avant-garde, her future could be inspired by two other female award winners, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier. "I have some interest since I saw the two women who won the Nobel Prize in connection with CRISPR, I have some interest in gene editing," Avant-garde tells NPR.

She says she's thinking about a variety of options: working at NASA, or perhaps coaching in the NBA or playing in the WNBA. Or maybe exploring her "side interest": neuroscience.

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Robert Baldwin III
Robert Baldwin III is an assistant producer for Weekend All Things Considered and a reporter covering developing legal issues. Baldwin was part of the team that won a 2019 National Press Club Award for the breaking news coverage of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.